LEAN Advocates Become ‘Legislators’

By Sheila Freed

On August 7, Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada met at the Nevada State Senate for a role-play called ULegislate.  It was great fun, and in typical Lutheran fashion, the group questioned authority.

ULegislate is a learning experience in which participants play the roles of Senators and have floor debate on actual bills that passed in the 2017 Session.  On two of the three bills that were up for debate, LEAN voted the same way that the Legislature did.  However LEAN voted down the third, and the reason was quite Lutheran.  The bill, Senate Bill 322, requires every pupil in Nevada to pass a civics test before graduating high school.  This is a concept we can all support, and LEAN did.  However the bill has several exceptions, and the group did not like that.  We Lutherans embrace the “priesthood of all believers,” and take seriously the notion that all believers are equal before God.   So the majority voted no, in hopes that the bill would return in a more acceptable form.

Participants learned the rigid protocol of Senate business, and that much of the legislative process happens not on the chamber floors, but in committee meetings and legislators’ offices.  Here is where advocacy comes in.  Our paid Advocate meets with legislators individually to present the moral arguments on selected bills, with particular reference to the ELCA Social Statements.  Individual parishioners can do the same, either in person or by email, phone call, or letter.  The LEAN Advocate also testifies at committee hearings on selected bills.

The Senate staff was helpful and accommodating. They even made a video for us!

It’s great fun to watch, for several reasons.  First, you will learn some facts you may not know, and hear some arguments for and against the bills that you might not have thought of.  You will hear a bit of Bob Marley quoted! You will see people you know and those you don’t, so a roster of participants is included here.  LEAN is excited that people came from Las Vegas to participate, and that new people from both north and south were there.

“Senators” participating in ULegislate were:  Chad Adamik, Pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Family, Carson City; John Biggs, Pastor of Saved by Grace, Pahrump; Veralyn Combs, member of Holy Cross, Reno; Ed Cotton, member of Community Lutheran, Las Vegas; Diane Drach-Meinel, Pastor of Christ the Servant, Las Vegas; Sonja Dresbach, member of Faith, Reno; Sheila Freed, member of Good Shepherd, Reno; Timothy Johnson, member of Lord of Mercy, Sparks; Bill Ledford, LEAN Advocate; Diane Ludlow, member of Holy Cross, Reno; Shaun O’Reilly, pastoral intern at Lord of Mercy, Sparks, Mike Patterson, retired pastor, Gift of Grace, Fernley; Barbara Peterson, member of Holy Cross, Sparks; Thomas Rasmussen, member of Saved by Grace, Pahrump; Pennie Sheaffer, member of Lord of Mercy, Sparks; Scott Trevithick, Pastor, Holy Cross, Reno; Ashlynne Valdez, member of Lord of Mercy, Sparks; Vic Williams, member of Good Shepherd, Reno.  “Secretary” of the Senate was Allan Smith, former LEAN Advocate.  If you want to learn more about LEAN, please connect with one of these folks.

ULegislate was just the first in a line-up of events designed to engage parishioners as LEAN moves into the 120-day 2019 Legislative Session.  Watch for “Pencils for Pupils” in January, followed by the LEAN kickoff lunch on February 4, the session’s first day.

A Holy Respite in the Legislative Fray

Conservatives and Progressives, Democrats and Republicans, Jews and Christians, together in the Nevada Legislative building together celebrating a Passover Seder…yes it actually happened. For a short time on April 7 politics was put aside and people from every persuasion joined in a learning moment to remember that the Jewish Passover and Christian Holy Week shared a historical connection.

The director of Lutheran Episcopal Alliance in Nevada, Rev. Mike Patterson, was invited to this event and helped with the Host Committee. The leader for the meal was Cantor Bob Fisher who explained the ritual feast and why the Passover meal used the various elements to remember the Jewish history around the events in Egypt. The cantor also reminded those present that the Last Supper celebrated by most Christians was actually the Passover feast that Jesus and His disciples practiced on the night before the events of the crucifixion.

It was for many a time away from the divisive political atmosphere of the legislature and a time to remember what most of us share together. Everyone present was appreciative of the work done putting on this event by the Nevada legislative Jewish Council and the Host Committee.

Controversy in Indiana, Victory in Nevada

By Sheila Freed

There has been a lot of news coverage the past several days about Indiana. The legislature there passed and the governor signed a new law designed to protect religious freedom. The backlash has been immediate and significant, because the bill is seen as discriminatory against the LGBT community and potentially other groups. Several large corporations who do business in Indiana have said they will change their plans because of this law, and the result will be lost jobs and lost revenue to the state. But for an upswell of public concern — including a pushback in the media and among its voters — Nevada could have seen the same scenario play out here.

Assembly Bill 277 was introduced in the Nevada Legislature on March 12, 2015. The next day it was referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. As of April 2, the bill had apparently died with no action. The “Nevada Protection of Religious Freedom Act” was nearly identical to the Indiana law. Defenders of the Indiana law said it’s just like a federal law passed in 1993, but in fact Indiana’s new law, and what could have been Nevada law, go much farther. Both say that a “person” has the right to practice religion free of government interference. However the definition of “person” which is specifically included in the proposed statute is a “natural person; or any form of business or social organization or other nongovernmental legal entity, whether or not the organization or legal entity is created, organized, or operated for profit.” The backlash in Indiana and potentially in Nevada is that this definition allows businesses to discriminate based on a claimed religious belief. The infamous Citizens United decision said that corporations have a right to free speech. This legislation effectively gives corporations freedom of religion as well. (Does that mean they have a conscience? Doubtful.)

There are a number of states that have similar “religious freedom” laws, most being in the Deep South. The Arkansas legislature just passed such a law, and even Wal Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, is urging the governor not to sign it. Passage of AB 277 would have had huge implications for the tourist/hospitality industry in Nevada, and could very well have negated all the incentives the state has given to Tesla and other businesses to bring them here. But, more measured minds prevailed. Our legislators not only observed and took seriously Indiana’s ill-considered passing of their own bill; they did the right thing and left Nevada’s to die.

That’s advocacy in action. With so many potentially damaging bills coming up for committee vote or full-on assembly or senate vote as the 2015 session enters its second half, let’s assure our voices keep being heard.

— with contributions from Vic Williams

Creating Change from … Nothing

Editor’s Note: The following is from a March 27, 2015 Lenten e-mail message by ELCA Director of Advocacy Stacy Martin. It goes to the heart of why Christ-based advocacy matters.

“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.”

Mark 6:42-44 (NRSV)

Like Thomas Jefferson, I’ve never seemed to have much patience for the Bible’s miracle stories. They’re difficult to deal with. To my modern mind, it’s hard to imagine that seas can part, food can appear from nowhere and that the dead can be raised.

It’s so tempting for me, in my very modern way, to domesticate miracles – like reducing the feeding of the 5,000 miracle to an idyllic picnic or desert potluck. Not that thousands of human beings sharing isn’t miraculous. It is. In the four Gospels, there are six accounts of this miracle. Six! It must be too important a story for it to be about people sharing their lunches. Miracles are tricky that way.

In the Gospel of John account of the miracle of feeding the crowd, the disciples estimate that the crowd is so large that not even six months’ worth of paychecks would be enough money to feed the mass of people assembled. By expressing the amount in such stark terms, what I think the disciples are really saying is, “We don’t have enough money to feed all these people.” And Jesus is saying, “Exactly. Isn’t that great?”

Isn’t that just like Jesus?

One disciple retorts with what I hear as screaming sarcasm. “There’s a boy with five loaves and two fish,” he says. Imagine! Five thousand hungry people on the side of a mountain, and only five loaves and two fish in sight to feed them with. But it seems that this is exactly what Jesus wanted. The funny thing about God is that we are called to be God’s hands in the world at precisely those times when there’s a whole lot of nothing to work with; which is to say, God calls us all of the time. God even sets God’s communion table so that we come with nothing. It seems that God likes it best that way.

God also likes to turn things on their heads. Jesus’ disciples, who expected to be the ones to provide what was needed, found themselves surprisingly dependent upon the generosity of a small child. The Gospels’ accounts of this miracle indicate that the boy gave over his lunch with the kind of abandon and generosity that we only associate with God. It is just the kind of juxtaposition that God seems to enjoy best. Jesus’ faith is placed in a little child to stave off what might become a riot if the crowd is not fed. This is the same kind of juxtaposition we find ourselves in as church when we advocate in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

This story about feeding 5,000 with so little is, among other things, a story about perspective. The disciples’ main mistake in this story, I think, is that they have no idea what it is that they have. Namely, they have a God who can feed many on nothing. A God who created the universe out of nothing. A God who put flesh on the nothingness of dry bones. “Nothing” is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as “nothing,” “insignificant,” “worthless,” and says, “HA! Now THAT is something I can work with!”

It is our poverty that we are asked to bring to God, not our treasure, because whether we think we have it all or we think we have nothing, we are all of us beggars fed at the table of God’s mercy. What do we have? Five loaves, a couple of fish? Not much. We believe that even when we want to make a difference in the world, we have to arrive fully prepared, fully equipped and fully funded.

I hear often from church folk and non-church folk alike that Lutherans, any faith community for that matter, can make no real difference in Washington. “Why bother?” I’m asked. Compared to big lobbying firms and corporations, they have a point. By comparison, we don’t have money, or connections, or power, or, often, technical expertise. What do we have? Five loves, a couple of fish? Only a smidge shy of nothing even on our most prosperous days.

It’s on the darkest of days when even bishops suggest that all is hopeless in the halls of power, when I’m dismissed by a member of Congress because I don’t come with deep pockets, when I’m ridiculed by a think tank because I attend to this work from a place of faith and not a place of “real” expertise, when I’ve received the tenth angry letter from a fellow Lutheran who is frustrated with me for even considering advocacy as a legitimate vocation, when I feel that we as the church simply don’t have enough power to change things for the better. It’s on those darkest days that I re-read this miracle story.This tricky little miracle story – the one told six times over in the Bible – says otherwise to the “why bothers” of the world. In this story we glimpse God’s inverted economy of free bread and fish paid for by, you guessed it, nothing. This is part of the juxtaposition I mentioned earlier. It is out of nothing that God will create something, even something as big as justice and peace. It is a tricky little miracle for sure.

In the last days before Easter, as we await the biggest miracle of them all – the bringing forth of life from the vast nothingness of death – may we remember that our nothingness is all that God asks or needs.